Monday, March 27, 2006

Living with the Endangered Species Act

By WHITNEY ROYSTER - Star-Tribune environmental reporter

Following are perspectives of Wyoming people whose lives have been affected by the Endangered Species Act.

'Your hands are tied'

For Mary Thoman and the Thoman Ranch on the Green River north of Green River, the Endangered Species Act has "had a pretty profound effect." It started about seven years ago, when a female wolf arrived and "crippled 29 lambs and scattered them through our allotment in the Gros Ventre," Thoman said. "That was our first encounter with the wolf. We were pretty unprepared for the kind of damage she could do." Thoman has been ranching in the area for 30 years and has had experience with coyote losses. But those losses, she said, have been surpassed by the impact of grizzly bears and wolves. Her ranch averages $30,000 to $50,000 in losses each year through lost animals, Thoman said. The Endangered Species Act has "totally changed the dynamics of living in the mountains," as her ranch has had to double the manpower on grazing allotments, take more frequent trips to check on the herds, and carry pepper spray.

As for proposed changes to the law, Thoman would like to see less bureaucracy. "We believe in the ESA; it just needs to be changed so it's realistic," she said. Specifically, she would like to see plans to remove species once they are recovered, and a more realistic way for ranchers to recoup losses. She'd also like to see protected predators moved pre-emptively before they become a problem for ranchers. "It just goes on and on and on, and your hands are tied," she said.

'Society would be poorer'

For Doug Sobey of Moran, the world is a better and more enriching place because of the Endangered Species Act. "Having particularly the grizzly bear represents everything that is wild," he said. "There are so few wild places left in the world. The grizzly bear can only exist in wilderness areas. It's a representation of that kind of area that's just not left anymore." He said the law, which has been a "fantastic tool and still is," has protected other "American icons" such as the gray whale and bald eagle. "Everybody agrees that the ESA saved them from going extinct," he said. "Society definitely would be poorer without it." He said hiking in bear country provides a richer experience because you know there are grizzlies around.

"It wouldn't be the same experience to us if we weren't hiking about knowing there were grizzly bears about and the chance of seeing one," he said. "People come to Yellowstone to see a grizzly bear -- it's high on their list. That, and/or wolves. I don't think they would come as much as they would with grizzly bears. "It's kind of almost a spiritual effect, and economic as well. People from all over the country come to see it, and from all over the world."

'How many more years?'

The Endangered Species Act has affected Albert Sommers, president of the Upper Green River Cattlemen's Association and a rancher south of Cora, particularly in the last 10 years. First grizzly bears began preying on cattle, and by 2000 there were wolves. "In '95 we started losing a lot more calves," Sommers said. Records he and other ranchers in the area have collected show in 1990, 2.7 percent of calves turned out on Upper Green pastures did not return. In 1995, 3 percent did not return; in 2000, 3.5 percent did not return; and in 2005, 6.9 percent did not return.

Sommers said there are times he has wondered if he's going to stay in business. "I'm getting to the point up there where I'm questioning how many more years we're going to be able to stand it," he said. "Management on cattle has changed dramatically, in the face of that much predation." He said range riders have a hard time keeping cattle dispersed across the range, which can impair the grazing allotments and range conditions. Sometimes cattle have to be removed from allotments early, moved, or brought home. "The primary focus for us used to be simply taking care of the cattle, making sure they were dispersed, managing range programs and the health of our cattle," he said. "Now probably our primary thing is dealing with those endangered species."

'The best economy and ecology'

For Taylor Outfitters outside Moran, the Endangered Species Act has been a boon to business. The business, owned by Meredith and Tory Taylor, has expanded to offer natural history and environmental trips into the wilderness. "People from all over the world call us about going on natural history trips to see large carnivores and threatened and endangered species in the last best place -- greater Yellowstone," Meredith Taylor said. "Endangered species are popular species, and that converts to the best economy and ecology for us as ranchers."

Last year, the British Broadcasting Corp. made a video with Taylor Outfitters on a wilderness pack trip, after contracting the Taylors to take a film crew out to see bears and wolves. The media group was referred to Taylor Outfitters because the business has evolved from hunting into a natural history pack trips over the past 25 years, Taylor said.

"The BBC pack trip was magical when we woke up the first morning and saw the Washakie pack of six wolves within about 300 meters of camp. The film crew was thrilled when the photographer got 20 minutes' footage of the wolves in the wild that became the centerpiece of the film." Taylor also said wolves have been big business for Yellowstone and the state, helping the state top $2 billion in tourist revenue last year. The Endangered Species Act has also helped restore the area to an intact, balanced ecosystem, she said.

No more 'sneaking through the woods'

For Wally Cash of Gillette, the Endangered Species Act ultimately meant a titanium plate on his skull and skin grafts on his hand. Cash was mauled by a grizzly bear in the fall of 2004 while hunting up Pilgrim Creek just outside Grand Teton National Park. "I'm not against endangered species," he said. "I'm not against it. I think they've allowed it to go too long. When you get too populated, it's moving a lot of people who won't go back in there."

Including Cash. Although he had been hunting in the area for the last 15 years, he doesn't go back anymore. "If it didn't happen, I would have gone back," he said. "My friends and outfitters have all pulled out." He said during the last 20 years grizzly sightings were not uncommon, "but they never bothered you."

"But there's so many of them now, they hear a shot and here they come," he said. Cash said he is not "going to be sneaking through the woods like I used to." Cash's injuries, which included ripped flesh over his skull and a missing piece of skull, and a torn left hand and knuckle, have healed. "It was gross looking," he said. "I'm a good healer."

'Bears and wolves are a draw'

Working with the National Outdoor Leadership School in Lander, Jennifer Lamb has seen firsthand the draw that threatened and endangered species are for Wyoming. "Wildlife, in particular predators, raptors and even big game, are definitely a big deal to students. Seeing them in the wild is often a course highlight, and suddenly grasping the realization that you're living in their world can be a really intense and humbling experience for some students," she said.

"Bears and wolves are indeed a draw, creating both fear and fascination. They also have a profound impact on how courses camp and travel, so students are affected daily by their presence, even if they never see or hear a bear or wolf. "In bear country, for example, courses follow 'bear practices' that change the way students cook, store food and travel in order to minimize interactions with and impact on bears. It's great that we can learn to coexist in a way that maximizes safety and minimizes impact on the animals. "The ESA has given us a chance to learn about these critters as visitors in their home territory and in so doing, has helped us to develop deep respect for all things wild."

'Changed our life dramatically'

For Jon Robinett, manager of the Diamond G Ranch near Dubois, it's not the Endangered Species Act specifically that has changed life, but the presence of the animals. "The ESA I guess is indirectly associated with our ability to manage," he said. "The presence of the animals has changed our life dramatically." The ranch does its calving now in Riverton to reduce conflicts with bears and wolves, and managers go back and forth. The ranch has lost six dogs to wolves, including Great Pyrenees, which were useful in keeping grizzlies away, he said.

"They take a lot of our friends away," he said of wolves. For the dogs, the ranch built a kennel outside. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has outfitted Robinett with a monitor to track collared wolves. The ranch also can be issued permits to kill wolves, but only after a problem is reported. Robinett said he understands why the permit is issued that way -- "otherwise, they'd just be hammering the wolves" -- but he said he knows if wolves are in the area there is likely to be a problem.

  • Casper Star-Tribune

    Post a Comment

    << Home